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In the Kingdom of Ice

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In the Kingdom of Ice

  Copyright © 2014 by Hampton Sides

  All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House LLC, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, Penguin Random House companies.


  DOUBLEDAY and the portrayal of an anchor with a dolphin are registered trademarks of Random House LLC.

  Book design by Maria Carella

  Maps designed by Jeffrey L. Ward

  Endpaper illustration: William Bradford, Icebergs in the Arctic (1882)

  Jacket design by John Fontana

  Jacket photograph © Emmanuel Berthier/Hemis/Corbis

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Sides, Hampton.

  In the kingdom of ice : the grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette / Hampton Sides. — First edition.

  pages cm

  Includes bibliographical references.

  ISBN 978-0-385-53537-3 — ISBN 978-0-385-53538-0 (ebook) 1. Jeannette (Steamer)—History. 2. Shipwrecks—Arctic Ocean—History—19th century. 3. Shipwreck survival—Arctic Ocean—History—19th century. 4. Shipwreck survival—Siberia—History—19th century. 5. Bennett, James Gordon, [date]. 6. De Long, George W. (George Washington), [date]. I. Title.

  G530.J37S53 2014

  910.4’52—dc23 2014004367


  To My Brother



  In the kingdom of ice, far from the world,

  lamentations rise from the ship,

  As she battles the slabs and the growling swirls,

  and writhes in their throttling grip.

  The crusted floes crack in fits and in sprees,

  and in fury flog her planked hide,

  Spent sailors fall upon supplicant knees,

  yearning for kith and hearthside.

  The hungry ice clutches more tightly,

  to check the flight of its prey,

  The captain’s command rings forthrightly,

  “All hands quit while ye may!”

  See how the rough men pine and weep,

  as she falters and slips,

  High in the masts, the haunted winds whine,

  a dirge to the truest of ships

  That bore them so long, yet now in the murk,

  the proud boat twists to her bed,

  And when the day hath ended its work,

  Northern Lights paint her grave purple-red.

  —“The Sinking of the Jeannette,” by Joachim Ringelnatz

  The privilege isn’t given to everyone.… You must have suffered first, have suffered greatly, have gained some miserable knowledge. In that way your eyes are opened to it.

  —Henry James, 1881



  Title Page



  The Company of the USS Jeannette

  Prologue: Baptism by Ice


  1 · A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death

  2 · Ne Plus Ultra

  3 · The Lord of Creation

  4 · For You I Will Dare Anything

  5 · Gateways to the Pole


  6 · The Engine of the World

  7 · Satisfaction

  8 · The Sage of Gotha

  9 · Pandora

  10 · Three Years, or Eternity

  11 · A Benediction

  12 · Second Chances

  13 · The U.S. Arctic Expedition

  14 · All That Man Can Do

  15 · The New Invader


  16 · A Cul-de-Sac

  17 · Nipped

  18 · Among the Swells

  19 · If by Any Mischance

  20 · A Delusion and a Snare

  21 · Forever, Almost

  22 · Invisible Hands


  23 · On the Lone Icebound Sea

  24 · The Discovered Country

  25 · Tidings

  26 · Death Strokes


  27 · All Mucky

  28 · Nil Desperandum

  29 · The Phantom Continent

  30 · A Second Promised Land

  31 · Eight Precious Days

  32 · The Known World

  33 · Seas High and Spiteful


  34 · Lucky Fourteen

  35 · Remember Me in New York

  36 · If It Takes My Last Dollar

  37 · Frantic Pantomimes

  38 · Incubus of Horrors

  39 · White Gloom

  40 · The Russian Nation at Your Back

  41 · They That Watch for the Morning

  42 · A Wild Dirge Through Time

  Epilogue: As Long as I Have Ice to Stand On



  Selected Bibliography

  Photo Credits

  About the Author


  Additional Photos

  Other Books by This Author



  Lieutenant George De Long, commanding

  Lieutenant Charles Chipp, executive officer

  Master John Danenhower, navigation officer

  George Melville, engineer

  Dr. James Ambler, surgeon


  Jerome Collins, meteorologist, correspondent to the New York Herald

  Raymond Newcomb, naturalist


  William Dunbar, ice pilot

  John Cole, boatswain

  Walter Lee, machinist

  James Bartlett, first-class fireman

  George Boyd, second-class fireman

  Alfred Sweetman, carpenter


  William Nindemann

  Herbert Leach

  Carl Görtz

  Edward Starr

  Heinrich Kaack

  Frank Mansen

  Adolph Dressler

  Walter Sharvell

  Louis Noros

  Henry Wilson

  Peter Johnson

  Henry Warren

  Albert Kuehne

  Hans Erichsen

  Nelse Iverson

  George Lauterbach


  Ah Sam

  Charles Tong Sing





  On a misty morning in late April 1873, the Tigress, a steam barkentine out of Conception Bay, Newfoundland, was pushing through the loose floes and bergs off the coast of Labrador, heading for the seasonal seal-hunting grounds. Late in the morning, the Tigress encountered something strange: A lone Inuit in a kayak was hailing the ship, waving his arms and screaming at the top of his lungs. The native man was clearly in some kind of trouble. He had ventured much farther out into the perilous open waters of the North Atlantic than any Eskimo ordinarily would. When the Tigress pulled closer to him, he yelled, in accented English, “American steamer! American steamer!”

  The crew of the Tigress leaned over the railings and tried to decipher what the Inuit was talking about. Just then, the fog parted enough to reveal, in the middle distance, a jagged floe piece, on which more than a dozen men and women, plus several children, appeared to be trapped. Seeing the ship, the marooned party erupted in cheers and fired guns into the air.

  The Tigress’s captain, Isaac Bartlett, ordered rescue boats put in the wat
er. When the stranded people—nineteen in all—were brought aboard, it was immediately apparent that they had suffered a horrific ordeal. Emaciated, filthy, and frostbitten, they had haunted looks in their eyes. Their lips and teeth were greasy from a just-finished breakfast of seal intestine.

  “How long have you been on the ice?” Captain Bartlett asked them.

  The senior member of the group, an American named George Tyson, stepped forward. “Since the fifteenth of October,” he replied.

  Bartlett tried to understand what Tyson was saying. October 15 was 196 days earlier. These people, whoever they were, had been stranded on this ice slab for nearly seven months. Their precarious floe had been, Tyson said, a “God-made raft.”

  Bartlett questioned Tyson further and learned, to his astonishment, that these pitiful castaways had been aboard the Polaris, a ship famous around the world. (This was the “American steamer!” the Inuit had been screaming about.) The Polaris, an unprepossessing steam tug that had been reinforced for the ice, was the exploring vessel of an American polar expedition, partly funded by Congress and supported by the U.S. Navy, that had left New London, Connecticut, two years earlier and, after a few stops along the way to Greenland, had not been heard from since.

  AFTER PENETRATING JUST beyond the 82nd parallel, a nautical latitude record at the time, the Polaris had become trapped in the ice high along the west coast of Greenland. Then, in November 1871, the expedition commander, a brooding, eccentric visionary from Cincinnati named Charles Francis Hall, had died under mysterious circumstances after drinking a cup of coffee that, he suspected, had been laced with poison. Following Hall’s death, the leaderless expedition had completely unraveled.

  On the night of October 15, 1872, a large piece of ice on which Tyson and eighteen other expedition members were temporarily encamped had suddenly broken away from the vicinity of the ship and started drifting into Baffin Bay. The party of castaways, which included several Inuit families and a newborn infant, was never able to rejoin the Polaris, and they resigned themselves to their slab of ice. They helplessly floated toward the south, through the winter and spring, sleeping in igloos and living on seals, narwhals, seabirds, and the occasional polar bear. Not having any fuel with which to cook, they ate only raw meat, organs, and blood, when they were lucky enough to have it, for the duration of their drift.

  Tyson said they had been “fools of fortune.” Huddled miserably on their ever-shrinking slab, they were batted around “like a shuttlecock,” he said, by heaving seas, crashing icebergs, and powerful gales. Amazingly, though, no one in the stranded party had died. In all, they had drifted eighteen hundred miles.

  Dumbfounded by Tyson’s story, Captain Bartlett welcomed the unfortunates to his ship, fed them a warm meal of codfish, potatoes, and coffee, and in due course delivered them to St. John’s, Newfoundland, where they were met by a U.S. Navy vessel and taken straight to Washington. A hasty interrogation of Tyson and other survivors revealed, among other things, that the Polaris, though damaged, was likely still intact and that the balance of the expedition—fourteen members—might yet be alive, trapped on their leaky ship somewhere high in the Greenland ice. Naval authorities, after cross-examining the survivors, learned that the Polaris had suffered a crisis of leadership nearly from the start, that mutiny had been discussed, and that Charles Hall may indeed have been poisoned. (Nearly a century later, forensic experts exhumed his corpse and detected toxic quantities of arsenic in tissue samples.) Tyson, though refusing to name names, cried foul. “Those who have baffled and spoiled this expedition,” he roared, “cannot escape their God!”

  The American public, stunned by this woeful tale of a national voyage gone spectacularly wrong, clamored for a relief expedition to return to the Arctic to hunt for survivors. And so, with President Ulysses S. Grant’s approval, the Navy promptly dispatched a ship, the USS Juniata, to Greenland to commence a search for the hobbled Polaris.

  The Juniata, under the command of Daniel L. Braine, was a battle-scabbed sloop of war that had seen much action in the Atlantic blockade during the Civil War. Newspapers across America celebrated her departure from New York on June 23. The Juniata’s mission to Greenland had all the elements: Here was a thrilling rescue story of national import—and also a detective story, with a whiff of intrigue and possible murder. A correspondent from the New York Herald would be joining the Juniata at St. John’s to report on the search. In large part because of the Herald’s presence, the hunt for the Polaris would become the sensation of the late summer of 1873.

  THE SECOND-IN-COMMAND ABOARD the Juniata was a young lieutenant from New York City named George De Long. Twenty-eight years old, his keen blue-gray eyes framed by pince-nez glasses, De Long was a man in a hurry to do great things. He was large and broad-shouldered and weighed 195 pounds. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, ginger-haired and fair-skinned, he had a shaggy mustache that drooped prodigiously over the corner creases of his mouth. Whenever he had a moment to sit, he could usually be found smoking a meerschaum pipe, his head buried in a book. The warmth of his smile and the softness of his fleshy face were offset by a certain truculence in his jawline, a feature observers often remarked upon. De Long was a determined, straight-ahead sort of man, efficient and thorough, and he burned with ambition. One of his expressions, a motto of sorts, was “Do it now.”

  De Long had sailed over much of the world—Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and all along the Eastern Seaboard—but he had never been to the Arctic before, and he was not especially looking forward to the journey. De Long was far more accustomed to the tropics. He had never paid attention to the great quest for the North Pole, which had so ferociously preoccupied explorers like Hall and thrilled the public. To De Long, the Juniata’s cruise to Greenland was just another assignment.

  He did not seem to think much of St. John’s, where the Juniata stopped to take on stores and where shipbuilders sheathed her bow in iron for the coming encounters with the ice. When the Juniata reached the half-frozen hamlet of Sukkertoppen, on Greenland’s southwestern coast, De Long wrote to his wife, “I never in my life saw such a dreary land of desolation and I hope I may never find myself cast away in such a perfectly God-forsaken place…The ‘town,’ such as it is, consists of two houses and about a dozen huts made of mud and wood. I went into one and have been scratching ever since.”

  De Long was positively smitten with his wife, Emma, a young French-American woman from Le Havre. He hated being so far away from her. He and Emma had been married for more than two years but had scarcely seen each other, for De Long’s Navy assignments had kept him almost constantly at sea. Sylvie, their baby girl, was nearly a stranger to him. The De Longs had a little apartment on Twenty-second Street in Manhattan, yet he was never there. Emma said her husband was a man “destined always to be separated from the ones he loved.” There was not much he could do about his prolonged absences—this was the life of a career naval officer.

  At times, though, De Long dreamed of taking a leave and living another kind of existence with Emma and Sylvie, somewhere in the American West, or in the countryside in the south of France. From Greenland, he wrote to Emma about his fantasy. “I cannot help thinking how much happier we should be if we were together,” he said. “When we are apart I devise so many schemes … How nice it would be to go to some quiet place in Europe and pass a year by ourselves, where the Navy Department would not bother me with its orders, or any troubles come to make us uneasy. I think, darling, when I finish this cruise I might be able to get a year’s absence and we might spend it together where it would not be expensive and have a little home of our own. Don’t you think we could do that?”

  De Long’s disdain for the polar landscape soon wore off. As the Juniata crossed the Arctic Circle and pressed ever farther up the ragged west coast of the world’s largest island, something began to take hold of him. He became more and more intrigued by the Arctic, by its lonely grandeur, by its mirages and strange tricks of light, its mock moons a
nd blood-red halos, its thick, misty atmospheres, which altered and magnified sounds, leaving the impression that one was living under a dome. He felt as though he were breathing rarefied air. He became intrigued by the phenomenon of the “ice blink,” the spectral glow in the low sky that indicated the presence of a large frozen pack ahead. The scenery grew more impressive: ice-gouged fjords, towering bergs calved fresh from glaciers, the crisp sound of cold surf lapping against the pack, ringed seals peeking through gaps in the ice, bowhead whales spouting in the deep gray channel. This was the purest wilderness De Long had ever seen, and he began to fall in love with it.

  BY LATE JULY, when the Juniata arrived at Disko Island, a windswept place of bubbling hot springs and Viking legends far up the coast of Greenland, De Long’s baptism by ice was nearly complete. Dressed head to toe in furs and wearing sealskin boots, he had gotten into the swing of things. “We have taken on board twelve dogs for sleds,” he wrote, “and we are now really worth looking at. The ship is black with dirt and coal dust, dogs packed away among the coal, sheep tied up forward and beef hanging around right and left with fish here and there. We are really in a good state to go anywhere.”

  As he continued northward, De Long found himself absorbed by the question of what had happened to Charles Francis Hall and his expedition. Where had it gone wrong? What decisions had led to its demise? Where was the Polaris now, and were there any survivors? As a Navy officer, he was intrigued by matters of hierarchy, discipline, and motivation—how an operation was organized, and how that organization might fall apart. De Long felt himself being pulled deeper into a mystery infinitely more interesting than the dreary duties of his ordinary life at sea.

  On July 31, the Juniata arrived at the tiny ice-clogged village of Upernavik, four hundred miles above the Arctic Circle, and here the plot of this polar detective story began to thicken. De Long and Captain Braine went ashore to meet with a Danish official named Krarup Smith, the inspector royal of North Greenland. Inspector Smith had some interesting things to say about Charles Hall, who had stopped here with his entire expedition two years earlier, before disappearing in the High Arctic. Smith did not know where the Polaris was now, or whether there were any survivors, but he did offer one intriguing detail: Hall, he said, had had a presentiment of his own death.

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